SA’s internet censorship bill will break media, marketing

Tue, 13/03/2018 - 08:59

Amid the euphoria of the Rama-presidency, some pretty darned scary — and largely unreported — news slipped out of Parliament last week: our legislators approved the internet censorship bill. Over the past month or two, it’s seemed that control of the asylum was gradually being wrestled back from the lunatics. But, on this evidence, it seems the crazies are still in charge.

Nearly half of our 400 MPs were too apathetic to pitch up for one of the most-significant debates seen by Parliament in recent years. And, of the 224 elected representatives who deigned to vote, a staggering 189 supported a bill that is so preposterous it’s almost comedic.

The Film and Publications Amendment Bill gives the erstwhile Film and Publications Board the right to regulate online content. Ostensibly, the bill is designed to protect children from being exposed to disturbing content. Laudably, it aims to curb revenge porn and hate speech while also addressing the scourge of fake news.

The bill determines that any person or entity who distributes or exhibits any film, game or digital publication is governed by its legislation. This means that the government will be given the power to restrict and censor online content, such as social media messages, distributed by companies and individuals. It’s Big Brother 2.0.

You can’t breathe
It’s akin to the government laying claim to oxygen and telling us that it’ll be the final arbiter in determining how much of the stuff we’re each able to breathe. Like oxygen, online content is ethereal. It’s all around us and, short of forcing us all to install a censor program on our laptops and phones, it’s going to be impossible to regulate.

The bill does try to differentiate between commercial and non-commercial distributors — the implication here is that organisations (and people) who make a living from online media will be subject to greater scrutiny than those who merely publish the odd meme or blog for personal gratification.

Online publishers will be forced to register with the FCB, pay a fee in order to distribute content and submit anything they intend to post for pre-classification/approval before it’s published. Step out of line and they’ll be fined.

Broken news
At a practical level, this piece of revisionism will take us back to the days of the printing press where two-month lead times predicated the release of the latest happenings. Breaking news will become broken news. Broken news means broke publishers.

The erosion of the fourth estate won’t just hamper free speech. It’ll kill the very watchdogs whose fearless reporting have exposed state capture and forced the Guptas to flee. Perhaps that’s motivation enough for the corpulent cowards who sit on the seats of power.

But, beyond the horrifying impact the bill will have on the press, it also has profound implications for the marketing industry. In recent years, storytelling and content production have taken the lion’s share of brand budgets. And most of this content is surfaced online. Nando’s topical double entendres will be no more. Spree’s personalised recommendation emailers will stop. Bonang’s Instagram product placements will cease to be. Perhaps some of that doesn’t sound like such bad news — but the idea that our every utterance will be subject to scrutiny most certainly is.

Unenforceable, expensive mess
So where to from here? While Parliament has approved the bill, it still needs to be debated and rubber stamped by the Council of Provinces. From there, it’ll go to the president for final authorisation. Somewhere in this process, surely someone will recognise that it’s going to another unenforceable, expensive mess.

*This article originally appeared on

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